A lot goes into creating a level playing field

When the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles battle in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., this Sunday, they will have the pleasure of chasing and pummeling each other on the most meticulously nurtured turf in the world.

Every day since it was installed, an all-star crew of 25 groundskeepers from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and Japan has tended the field with as much care as a coterie of nurses gives an aristocratic infant in an incubator. The slightest discoloration has been patched with pregerminated rye grass and fertilizer.

"The Super Bowl sod is designed to be both durable and look good to the millions of people watching the game," says George Toma, the NFL's turf consultant.

That is another way of saying the league wants its Super Bowl field to look like the front lawn of one of Jacksonville's posh oceanside estates.

Since the inaugural Super Bowl in 1967, Mr. Toma has been the man behind ensuring that NFL's premier event is played on a field as green as a freshly minted dollar bill. The grass - a hybrid Bermuda grass sod overseeded with an exclusive bluegrass/ryegrass mix - started growing a year and a half ago in southern Georgia, Toma says, and is cultivated to be strong enough to stand up to the 60 minutes of wear and tear from NFL behemoths.

Last month, nearly 100,000 square feet of the pampered sod was delivered in refrigerated trucks to Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium.

"About 10 acres of the sod is grown and we use the best of the crop while the remaining sod is 'on the bench' if we need it," Toma says. The groundskeeping crew installed it in three days.

Although the NFL has its own financial arrangement with the grower, West Coast Turf, in Palm Springs, Calif., a company spokesperson says the retail value of the grass is about $100,000.

"To showcase a great field, you have to get good sod," says Toma, whom Sports Illustrated called the "Nitty Gritty Dirt Man" because of his magic touch in producing championship playing fields. "In the early days we seeded, but since Super Bowl III, we have used sod."

The sod is laid using long patches that are 30 feet by 48 inches and 1-1/2 inches thick. Currently, Princess 77 is the sod of favor and has been used for the last three Super Bowls.

An artificial comeback

Toma, whose consulting with universities and professional stadiums keeps him away from home most of the year, says natural turf started to make a comeback in the early 1990s, after "Astroturf" became controversial due to players complaining of increased injuries.

Now, a new brand of artificial turf is gaining favor in cities with cold weather or indoor stadiums. The "infill" turf uses polyethylene grass blades woven in an ersatz soil made up of a mixture of rubber pellets.

Although Toma believes the new turf provides a good playing surface, he says there has been some criticism over installation and maintenance.

Nevertheless, more football teams may switch to artificial surfaces, especially if their natural grass fields need to be resodded two or three times a year. But Toma insists a good field can make it all the way through a season.

"The problem," he says, "is the sod. If you put bad sod down you'll eventually have to replace it before the season is over." To this, he adds one of his famous mantras: "A bad field is the cheapest advertisement for artificial turf."

The annual cost of maintaining a football field is about $100,000, says Ed Mangan, field director of the Atlanta Braves and NFL special projects, who is also overseeing the preparation for the Super Bowl field.

The best fields

While the Super Bowl sod is the finest playing turf, members of the National Football League Players Association ranked the infill FieldTurf surface at Seahawks Stadium in Seattle higher than most of the league's 20 grass fields. Only natural-turf fields for Tampa Bay and Arizona ranked higher.

Baseball players, according to a recent Sports Illustrated survey, ranked Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with natural turf, the best playing field in that sport.

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